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Premiere Althetes and Eating Disorders

Posted Oct 07 2008 5:35pm

While traveling during the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to catch up on some light reading. Most of the periodicals that I flipped through at the airport bookstores had something in common with the television news broadcasts of the week: all eyes were on the upcoming Olympic games. "Olympic Preview", "Meet Team USA", "Trophy Mania!". The headlines drew me into the familiar anticipation that returns every two years; the Olympics are here. As a nation and as a World Audience, we have the opportunity to witness the finest, premiere athletes put forth the most stellar of performances. It is indeed a time for pride, collective interest, and celebration. Indeed, I am a strong supporter of our athletes. Perhaps that is why it can be all the more disconcerting to sit with a premiere athlete in the therapy room as he or she discusses their ongoing battle with an eating disorder.

As a population group, athletes face a substantial increased risk for eating disorders. Premiere athletes, athletes who feel the pressure of "making weight" in order to compete, and athletes whose communities reinforce misconceptions about weight and sports performance have been shown to have elevated rates of eating disorders.

Although sports participation in general can, in fact, be a protective factor for eating disorders risk, some caveats may apply. Studies show that athletes who compete at high levels of certain performance sports ( gymnastics, dance, diving, swimming, figure skating) and some elite sports (wrestling, jockeying, rowing, running) are at higher risk for disordered weight-control behaviors. For example, an estimated 62% of female gymnasts have eating disorders, compared to about 2-6 percent of the general population. You may recall that World-class gymnast Christy Henrich lost her battle with bulimia and anorexia in 1994. Christy reportedly developed her eating disorders after being told by a competition judge that she needed to lose weight if she wanted to make the Olympic team. Current Olympians, such as Dara Torres have shared their own battles with eating disorders.

***Coaches, training personnel, parents, and the athletes themselves need your help in correcting misconceptions about weight and athletic performance (e.g., being thinner than your competitor does NOT mean that you will necessarily perform better and losing your period is NOT a sign that your body is in peak performance!)

***Female athletes need to be made aware of the risk of the Female Athlete Triad (a subject for a future post).

***Caution about exercise needs be be undertaken when an athlete is underweight: there may be a need to discuss revising a coaches approach to training, athletes may struggle tremendously with identity issues if they are "sidelined" at all during treatment, exercise restrictions may even need to be put in place when a patient is at physical risk; exercise dependence may be an issue for some of your patients (I will attempt to address all of these subjects in Treatment Notes as time goes by...)

The good news in that the NCAA and various Olympic officials have become increasingly aware of eating disorders risk in athletes. Some training personnel are finally coming on-line to reinforce healthy weight standards, as was the case at the recent Olympic games in Torino; however, there is much work yet to be done in order to educate athletic communities and officials.

Since we have been discussing the multidisciplinary approach to treatment, next time I will address the idea of including coaches in a patient's recovery, as we start to round out this topic.

As I close today (and prepare to watch the Opening Ceremonies for the 2008 summer Olympic Games), I am again reminded of my pride in our athletes. But even more so, I am aware of the need to continue to work collectively for the day when our athletes are no longer threatened with the devastation that an eating disorder can bring to their sports performance, their mental and physical health, and their ability to live truly victorious lives.

Recommended reading: The Exercise Balance, (2008), by Pauline Powers and Ron Thompson.

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